What does neuroscience say about learning styles?

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In this series we look at a number of myths which have grown up around good learning strategy and design and take the findings from neuroscience to confirm or bust them. This series is drawn from the book Brain-savvy Business: 8 principles from neuroscience and how to apply them. Jan is giving away 20 books, one to each reader who contributes a short example of how they will use the ideas in the series or of how they have applied neuroscience to learning.

We are urged, and we always have been, to apply the Learning Styles Theory to programme design, and prospective clients often insist we show how the design will meet participants’ different learning styles.

This Learning Style Theory isn’t one theory: there are actually a variety of slightly different ones, but the most well-known is probably Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory. [PDF]

Kolb's theory is typically represented by a four-stage learning cycle and four styles of learning. The cycle holds up fairly well to modern research but the styles do not. The cycle is:

  • Concrete Experience - a new situation, experience or a reinterpretation of existing knowledge occurs
  • Reflective Observation – the learner reflects on or has an insight which changes their beliefs
  • Abstract Conceptualization - reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing belief.
  • Active Experimentation - the learner applies the new idea to the world around them.

Kolb’s theory also says different people naturally prefer a very particular learning style and that various factors influence a person's preferred style such as social environment, educational experiences or the basic cognitive structure of an individual’s mind.

There are many different theories that suggest different learning styles. Many of the theories contradict each other, but that’s not really the issue. The issue is this: Are any of them correct and do they help people learn?

The intuitive sense of learning styles

People like the idea of different learning styles because the theories make intuitive sense.

Surely, people think, we all have a preference for learning in different ways. Some of us like learning practically, some experientially and others theoretically.

For example, it’s often said that people have a preference for the way in which information is presented – verbally, through experience, in writing or via other forms of visual presentation such as a model.

Again, there are variants of this theory but a widespread one is Fleming’s Visual learners. [PDF]

Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic

Some people think in pictures and like to learn via visual aids that represent ideas using methods other than words, such as graphs, charts, diagrams and symbols. Others are auditory learners who have a preference for lectures, discussions, tapes and so on. Kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience; they like moving, touching, and doing, and tend to like experiments and role play and so on.

The use of these ideas in programme design suggests participants have access to materials and information in all the modes so they can pick their preferred one. Participants can, it is claimed, use the model to identify their preferred learning style and thus optimise their learning by focusing on the mode that benefits them the most.

But the brain doesn’t work that way.

People like the idea of different learning styles because the theories make intuitive sense.

It’s true that we do store memories in three distinct ways and it’s possible that some people may be better at visualising things or remembering certain things via sound.

But that doesn’t mean delivering learning in one mode for some people and a different mode for others is necessary. Scientists have tested the theory by showing pictures or saying words to research participants and then seeing which they remember best. There was no discernible difference in learning.

When we ask people to learn or remember, we’re really asking people to learn about the meaning of something. It’s not enough simply to recall a word – we have to know its meaning if the learning is to be useful.

Nature of the learning v learner preference

We do know that it’s easier to learn certain things visually, like the shape of a product or where a country sits in relation to other counties on a map, and other things by hearing it, like a tune’s melody - that’s true of most people but is more to do with the nature of the thing to be learnt rather than the preference of the learner.

So why has this Learning Styles Theory persisted for so long?

Partly it’s because it seems to make sense intuitively. Something close to the theory is right but the specific basic assumptions of the theories are wrong. It’s also partly because, once we know the theory, we unconsciously filter data to match it.

A more productive way to think about programme design is to concentrate on implementing the right type of learning exercise according to the type of information and delivering it at the right time.

And this means categorising the information rather than the learners and their learning style.

When we ask people to learn or remember, we’re really asking people to learn about the meaning of something.

Another reason for the enduring popularity of the Learning Styles Theory is that changing the medium (from visual to auditory and so on) appears to work because it stops our brain getting bored, not because we naturally prefer one specific style of learning.

If you are interested in the research much of it has been carried out by Daniel Willingham. There is a short video of him explaining his research here.

So my advice is rather than obsess about learning styles take what you have learnt about how the brain learns and apply it to your strategy and design.

I will guarantee if you follow all of this your learners will be better able and more willing to learn and the learning will transfer to the business.

There is a summary of brain-savvy learning design in our video.

Jan is giving away 20 books, one to each reader who contributes a short example of how they will use the ideas in the series or of how they have applied neuroscience to learning. 

The final article in the series will be posted on April 22nd. The full article series can be seen here.

About Jan Hills

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17th May 2016 12:01

Hi Jan,

Thanks for this article, it's an interesting piece. I'm always glad to read pieces which help to debunk learning styles. I've written on it extensively too.

I think what I'm unsure of in your post, though, is what neuroscience has actually informed us about learning styles. What you've described above seems to be more about cognitive science and psychology and less about how an understanding of the brain actually informs us whether or not learning styles is 'brain friendly'.

Looking forward to your clarity on this.

Sukh

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